Superheroes on TV: TV Movies, specials and failed pilots

Superheroes on TV: TV movies, specials and failed pilots

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Not every show that’s pitched to the networks manages to get off the ground…and, trust us, it’s usually better that way. Sometimes, it’s only a brief pitch reel – for instance, there’s one from the ‘60s where someone had the idea for a “Batgirl” spinoff – while other times it’s a two-hour movie that’s intended to inspire a weekly series. (It’s just a damned shame we didn’t get 23 episodes worth of David Hasselhoff starring as Nick Fury. A damned shame.) Below are a couple examples of some of the shows that never made it past the TV movie stage and a couple that scored a one-hour pilot but never got picked up. We've also offered a special write-up about a pair of specials during the ‘70s that were so bad that…oh, you really should read about them for yourself.

Dr. Strange (1978)

It’s been almost three decades since I last saw the “Dr. Strange” movie, but I still remember my excitement when I first heard that it was coming to television. According to his resume, Dr. Stephen Strange is the Sorcerer Supreme of the Marvel Universe, a title he’s held since his first appearance in 1963. Basically, he’s the go-to guy for all magic-related issues, so in addition the various occasions when he’s had his own title, he’s been known to pop up just about anywhere when there’s a curse or spell at hand. Unfortunately, the Doc didn’t get much credibility out of this flick, which Stan Lee – who co-created the good doctor – reportedly disowned because he felt it was too camp. The fact that it hadn’t yet made it to DVD, even in the wake of the recent “Dr. Strange” animated film, suggests that it may indeed be as bad as it sounds. (Certainly, actor Peter Hooten wasn’t able to successfully pull off the Doctor’s snazzy attire without inspiring snickers from viewers.) While it scores points for being the rare live-action TV property to actually involve a bad guy who approximated an actual super villain, it’s still quite understandable that “Dr. Strange” didn’t spin off into a weekly TV series as its creators had intended. – WH

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Captain America (1979)

Once you get past Uncle Sam, there aren’t many characters who successfully embody the spirit of the U.S.A. more than Captain America. So how, then, did this fail so horribly at capturing the essence of the character? Frankly, we blame Evel Knievel: the famous motorcycle daredevil was all the rage in the ‘70s and, possibly not coincidentally, Captain America found himself wearing a freaking motorcycle helmet through most of the movie. (That he was at least actually riding a motorcycle most of the time he was wearing it was only mild consolation, given how ridiculous it looked.) Also, instead of taking the super-cool story about how Cap was frozen in ice immediately after World War II and then thawed out in the present, this flick ignores all that and suggests that the Captain America in this story is the son of the original. Whatever. Amazingly, though, this production managed to spawn a sequel, but despite its awesome title – “Captain America II: Death Too Soon” – it wasn’t much better. Yet, somehow, Hollywood managed to make an even worse film in 1990, one so bad that it went straight to video. People, if we can’t make a decent “Captain America” flick, the terrorists have won. – WH

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Legends of the Superheroes (1979)

If there’s anything in the history of superheroes on TV that can be defined as Must Be Seen To Be Believed TV, it’s these two specials, which were pretty bizarre back when they originally aired and have only gotten more ridiculous with age. It’s unfortunate that we don’t really have enough space within this piece to do them justice, but let’s go through a few highlights, shall we? First off, both specials had laugh tracks, even though the first one, entitled “The Challenge,” was an action-adventure tale, Clearly, they were going for something like the ‘60s “Batman” series, but, really, a laugh track? To borrow a Dave Edmunds album title, that’s about as subtle as a flying mallet. The storyline pitted DC’s finest heroes – Batman and Robin (played by Adam West and Burt Ward!), Captain Marvel, Green Lantern, Hawkman, The Huntress, The Flash and Black Canary – against its vilest villains: The Riddler (played once again by the late, great Frank Gorshin), Mordru, Solomon Grundy, Sinestro, Giganta, The Weather Wizard and Dr. Sivana. And what sort of villainous maneuvers did these evildoers utilize to defeat their nemeses? Well, we’re just going to give you one example: The Weather Wizard poses as a used car salesman and sells Batman and Robin a malfunctioning cycle and sidecar. Oh, God, it’s so bad. And if we were to add that the second special involved a superhero roast – hosted by Ed McMahon! – at which one of the guests is Ghetto Man, who gets his super powers by saying his magic word (“Kareem!”)…well, we’d understand if you needed us to swear on a stack of Bibles that we’re not kidding. Man, do we wish we were. But we aren’t. This is, without question, the “‘Star Wars’ Holiday Special” of DC Comics. – WH

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Justice League of America (1997)

Now that Cartoon Network has made household names out of the Justice League, Hollywood has gotten a big-budget live-action “JLA” feature film on the fast track, but DC’s premiere super team hasn’t always warranted such respect. In the late ‘90s, someone got it into their head that what the world was aching for was a really low-budget TV movie where the members of the group were a bunch of dysfunctional idiots. The Atom is a social outcast who can’t find a girlfriend, for instance, while The Flash can’t keep a job and gets evicted from his apartment as the proceedings begin. A few more recent characters enter the fray as well, including Fire and Ice (ho, ho) and the Guy Gardner incarnation of Green Lantern, but they’re just as bad, given that Ice starting a relationship with The Atom just as Fire is ending one with Guy. The awfulness of the special effects is second only to the heroes’ costumes, and the decision to intersperse the “drama” with segments where the heroes are interviewed about their lives is laughable. In fact, the only saving grace of the film comes from having David Ogden Stiers play J’onn J’onzz, Manhunter from Mars, but his acting ability is inevitably marred by the fact that he looks completely ridiculous! No wonder this thing barely saw the light of day. – WH

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Aquaman (2006)

So let me get this straight: it’s good enough to post for sale on iTunes, but it’s not good enough to actually make it on the air? But I’m getting ahead of myself. It was during a fifth-season episode of “Smallville” that Aquaman first -- you’ll pardon the pun -- surfaced, and it wasn’t intended to be a spin-off. When the episode turned out to be the highest-rated of the season, however, suddenly people began to remember that there was a reason the guy was a member of the Superfriends. Suddenly, a pilot was green-lighted, adapting the longstanding Aquaman mythos to the teen market, but as someone who’s seen it, I can tell you that it worked better than you’d think, possibly because the cast included Ving Rhames and Lou Diamond Phillips. In fact, upon close examination, there’s really not a great deal that’s been changed from Aquaman’s traditional origin story. Things have been teened-up a bit, but he’s still Atlantean royalty, he can still swim really fast and has super-strength when he’s in the water, and given the suggestion at one point that he can hear the dolphins calling to him, we’re guessing he can still communicate with sea life, too. Sounds cool, right? Nonetheless, The CW took a pass on picking up the show, but, as mentioned earlier, to make a few bucks out of the deal, they decided to go ahead and make the pilot available for download on iTunes for only $1.99. Hey, great idea: show people how well it turned out, get them excited about it, then shrug your shoulders and say, “Too bad that’s all there is!” – WH

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